Art-historical view of Mamallapuram/Mahabalipuram

Mamallapuram, also called as Mahabalipuram is situated at a distance of some 60 kms from Chennai. It is visited as a stopover to Pondicherry which is a popular weekend destination from Chennai and Bangalore.
Most people find it not worth the ‘hype’, “good but not so commendable”, “A,B,C temples are better than this”, they say while doing a photo spree.

The five-Rathas group, Mamallapuram

Nothing to blame on the tourist. It is our misfortune that all we read in the name of art was drawing a mango, Tiranga, peacock, lotus, sunflower and a scenery where everyone made two ‘samosa’ like hills with a sun in between, a river flowing down from these mountains, a hut on one side and a tree on other and if very enterprising then some ducks and grass etc. History had very small portion on ancient and medieval India, and the history of South India had even lesser share. That too such a mechanical account that everyone just memorized it, never bothering to put and see things in a larger perspective.

With such pathetic state of Art and History as a subject, no wonder that we never knew Art-history as a subject that looks at art in the historical development and design evolution context.

Note – This article deals only and only with the importance of monuments of Mahabalipuram in the Indian art-history. It does not go into the history of Pallava dynasty or history of Mahablipuram. It also does not look at the art of Mahabalipuram in detail. It only discusses why Mahabalipuram is so important in the classical Indian monuments.

All the monuments of Mahabalipuram were made by the Pallava rulers, whose rule began somewhere in 3rd 4th AD and continued for 400 years, when they were defeated by Cholas of Thanjavur.

Mamallapuram has three groups of monuments:
1. The rock-cut cave-temples and independent panels
2. Rock-cut monolithic temples, popularly called Rathas, and
3. The shore temple.

Lets us look at the rock-cut cave temples of India.

The earliest surviving rock-cut caves are at Barabar, near Gaya in Bihar. These date from the time of Mauryan empire, ranging within year 322-185 BCE. After that, we have many rock-cut temples and caves scattered all over India. Well known among these are Ajanta and Ellora caves, Elephanta caves, Badami caves and like. The caves of Mamallapuram are no comparison to the caves of Ajanta or Elephanta in terms of sculptural beauty.

However, the talk of the Art-historians is the free-standing panels of Mamallapuram, currently identified as Arjuna’s penance. Whole Mamallapuram is a riddle till now for art historians and so is this panel. Earlier deciphered to be “Descent of Ganga” showing Bhagirath’s penance, it is now said to be the “Arjuna’s Penance” to get the Pasupatastra from Lord Shiv.

The free-standing panel of Arjuna’s penance

The arguments that favor it to be Arjuna’s Penance are
1. If it was to be Descent of Ganga, then the emaciated person is Bhagirath and he should be praying to Lord Shiva in the shrine depicted in the panel. The shrine depicts the deity to be Lord Vishnu or Lord Achutya, which fits with the story of Nara and Narayana in which Arjuna in his previous birth was great sage called Nara and Krishna was Narayana, both did great penances at Badrika.

2. Many Art-historians relate it to the ancient literature titled “Kiratarjuniyam” by Bharavi. It was composed in 6th CE or earlier and it elaborates upon one minor story in ‘Vanparva’ in Mahabharata.
This story is about Arjuna doing severe penance to Shiva and Shiva then giving Arjuna Pashupatastra. Bharavi wrote this episode in ‘Vir Rasa'(valor mood) and made some changes and additions to this story and one of those additions is the telling of Nara-Narayana part.
In Mahabharat, sages living in the forest where Arjuna is doing penance get perturbed by the warrior with his weapons on him doing such severe penance. They complain to Lord Shiva to end Arjuna’s penance.
Bharavi in his ‘Kiratarjuniyam’ adds here. In his book, Lord Shiva tells sages that Arjuna is none other than Nara come to the mortal world along with Achyuta to destroy the evil forces.
Bharavi also says in this book that as the party of Shiva as hunter, Uma as huntress and other Ganas go through the forest, animals forget their animosity and frolic together.
Both these parts of the epic are evident in the bas-relief.

Arjuna’s Penance Panel, Mahabalipuram

For the viewer today, whether it is depicting Arjuna’s penance or Ganges’ Descent does not alter the pleasure of viewing this serene, exuberant, extremely skillful rendering by the Mamalla sculptor. The whole panel, though left incomplete, gives the life-size sculptures of living beings. Its elephants are in every size and age and in various moods.

Elephants in various pose, ‘Arjuna’s Penance’ panel, Mahabalipuram

Emaciated Arjun and Shiva’s boon giving yet forceful pose leaves us wondering at the versatility of the sculpture in being deft at animal as well as humans. We find lions to be of not that superior execution which can be due to absence of lions in South India and hence the artist never saw any lion. Nowhere in the Indian art we get to see such life-size sculptures of humans and animals together.

More than that, a literature has been chosen as the theme of sculpture shows the taste and insight and artistic inclination of the king who had as keen eye for words as for architecture and sculpture.

Another rock carved panel, known as Krishna Mandap, depicts Krishna as Govardhan Giridhari. This depicts the story of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan to save the people of Brij from the fury of Indra when he sends incessant rain. This panel is considered best depiction of Krishna’s Govardhan tale in whole of the Indian art.

Krishna as Govardhan Giridhari

Next group of monuments are the free-standing monolithic temples, popularly called Rathas.

I would like to draw your attention that India has innumerable rock-carved caves and cave-temples, some of whose fame is world-renowned. Most of us have either seen or heard about Ajanta and Ellora caves, Elephanta caves. There are more than 1500 known rock-cut structures in India. But when it comes to monolithic temples, that is rock carved independent temples, only a handful are there to be named.
These are the ‘rathas’ at Mahabalipuram , the Kailasa temples at Ellora, the temples of Masrur in Himachal Pradesh, and the rock-cut shrine of Thal in Almora, Uttaranchal and a few more, but in all countable on fingers
. Of these, the Thal temple is very small shrine as compared first three temples.

Masroor temples are dated to be built anywhere between 6th to 8th century but most likely to be in 8th century, Kailas temple was carved under the rule of Krishna I (A.D. 756-783) the Rashtrakuta monarch, and Mahabalipuram Rathas are attributed by ASI to king Narasmhavarman I (AD 630-668) of Pallava kingdom. This puts these monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram earliest in all of above.

Architecturally, Ratha temples at Mahabalipuram depict the evolution of Dravidian style of temple architecture, Kailas temple has the influence of Darvidian style but not exactly following it, and Masroor temples clearly have the north Indian temple architecture style.

Evolution from thatched roof , single tiered, double tiered and three tired Vimana

Single tiered, barrel-vaulted roofed Bhima Ratha

Three tiered vimana of Dharmraj Ratha

Therefore, these Panch Ratha temples provide us a most important link and clue to the Dravidian style of Architecture, later followed in South Indian temples.
Viewed in this light of evolution of Dravidian Architecture, these free-standing temples acquire an exalted status. These monuments transport us back to the era when we were still experimenting with the design and layout of our buildings, which were yet to be structurally built-in stone.

Now, coming to the last group of monuments, that is the Shore Temple. This has the most coveted place in the art history for being the earliest surviving large stone built temple or structural temple.

Lad Khan temple in Aihole, Karnataka, build in 5th CE is considered to be the earliest of the stone built temples surviving today, followed by Durga Temple of Aihole. Both these temples are small in size and show the early attempts at building the temple with stone, but these do not make an architectural statement of lofty Vimana or distinguished Mandapa or Gopuram.

The shore temple was build in the reign of Rajsimha Narsmhavarman II during 700-728 AD.

Remember that
Puri’s Jagganath temple was built somewhere in 11-12th CE,
Sun temple of Konark was build in 13th CE by Eastern Ganga dynasty,
Khajuraho temples were built between 10th to 12th CE, and
the current structure of Madurai was built-in 15th-16th CE after it was plundered by Malik Kafur in 14th CE.
Virupaksh temple of Hampi has a long date: beginning with a small shrine sometime in 7th CE, it went into many additions and alteration by Hoysalas, Chalukyas and its current form is attributed to a far later Vijaynagar empire.

Sangmeswar temple, Pattadakal, Karnataka

Temples at Pattadakkal can be put in the same timeline as that of Shore temple. The oldest of these temples is Sangameshwara built founded by Vijayaditya Satyashraya in A.D. 720. its vimana is two-tiered. Its columned hall is a later addition. If you see the shore temple and Sangameshwara temple together, you will find that the Pallavas under king Rajsimha have achieved loftier Vimana, larger plan and superb execution. Thus, this shore temple is the earliest extant stone structural temple of such grandeur, size and aesthetics.

Arjuna’s Penance, Rathas- the Monolithic temples and the Shore temple put Mahabalipuram/Mamallapuram in the important place in the Indian art-history in terms of architecture, sculpture and antiquity.

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© Manish Jaishree.